Monday, May 20, 2013

Time Catches Up With Everyone

My admiration for Sam Raimi will always remain, which of course is how it should be. Not only did he direct the all-holy EVIL DEAD II he’s a filmmaker who has tried to grow in his craft, attempting to combine the insane brilliance of his early work with material where the story and characters mattered just as much. A few encounters with the man have certainly added to the fondness, like getting to speak to him at a New York Fangoria convention way back when—I wore that DARKMAN t-shirt he gave me for years—and a few decades later when I spotted him sitting in the middle of a crowded theater talking to fans at a test screening of his DRAG ME TO HELL in Burbank. There was at least one other time too. Looking back at it now Raimi’s western THE QUICK AND THE DEAD seems to fall into a middle ground between the first and second stages of his career, almost as if it was some sort of aberration where he needed to learn a few things in terms of what he should and shouldn’t do before moving on to the next step. Coming between the EVIL DEAD series and the acclaim he received later for other projects culminating in 2002’s SPIDER-MAN, the film also spotlights Sharon Stone right in the middle of her mid-90s hot streak along with still-emerging future stars Russell Crowe and Leonardo DiCaprio along with an odd genre slant making it plain that this wasn’t just an ordinary western. Released during the post-UNFORGIVEN wave of such films in February 1995, THE QUICK AND THE DEAD was a disappointment at the box office and it might say something that Raimi didn’t direct anything at all for the next several years, instead focusing on producing TV along the lines of the lucrative HERCULES and XENA shows. I always wondered if he felt dissatisfied with the end result as if he was hired specifically to plug his EVIL DEAD visual style into a big-budget project where that may not have been part of the initial design and maybe to him it made the entire exercise creatively empty as a result. That’s all just speculation but in a recent interview with Vulture he simply stated, “Ultimately, the movie didn’t quite work” without elaborating. Still, the direction his career took in the coming years makes me guess a few things. Regardless of how well it did at the time, the film did go through a period later on when it seemed to turn up on TBS just about every weekend, I imagine at least partly having to do with the cast members who went on to be huge stars and while THE QUICK AND THE DEAD doesn’t feel like it quite hits the target (to use the theme of the film itself) I’ve always liked it ever since opening night at the Cinerama Dome. The heightened quality combined with a female lead in a strong role up against a wide variety of eccentric characters in such a setting makes the impeccable stylization a genuine pleasure to watch. Raimi’s recent massive-budget OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL plays as more uninteresting than outright bad and is surprisingly light on any sort of visual ingenuity outside of the incessant CGI so in comparison THE QUICK AND THE DEAD at least feels like him trying to find his way through this setting with all the bravado imaginable. The result is that the film plays as genuinely alive, even if it doesn’t necessarily cohere entirely so whatever he might say these days it finds him a little further along creatively than 1990’s DARKMAN, a little more confident both in implementing his visual style and combining it with strong characterizations. A mysterious woman known only as The Lady (Sharon Stone) arrives in the old west town of Redemption, a lawless place run by the wealthy and powerful John Herod (Gene Hackman). Her arrival there coincides with the beginning of the annual Quick Draw competition, a gun fight competition where marksmen fire on each other with the final winner receiving a large cash reward. The Lady enters along with contestants that include the brash young Kid (Leonardo DiCaprio) who is apparently Herod’s son, the reluctant former gunfighter Cort (Russell Crowe), a motley assemblage of other gunplay experts and Herod himself. It’s very clear that The Lady has a strong interest in fighting Herod which even he can tell but before she can get to him revealing her darkest secret and his connection to that past she still has a few gunfights to win first. Every frame feels sumptuous in THE QUICK AND THE DEAD, a big-budget combination of Raimi’s ferocious visual style aided by cinematographer Dante Spinotti mixed with the extravagance of the western town created by production designer Patrizia Von Brandenstein and costumes by Judianna Makovsky which helps make every single character instantly iconic right down to the hats they wear. Partly spoof, partly tribute, partly its own thing thanks to Raimi, the arch magnificence makes each moment feel genuinely off-kilter as if it was trying to revel in the fact that it’s a western as much as possible, even down to providing roles for actors who had been in a few before—Woody Strode of John Ford films as well as ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST appears briefly as a coffin maker in his final screen appearance—while achieving something much more theatrical. The spin of a female lead adds to the potency and the director continually places his star in the frame as if trying to make her presence as iconic as Barbara Stanwyck in FORTY GUNS while avoiding the trap of making it a gimmicky ‘female western’ (like the previous year’s BAD GIRLS which doesn’t have much to recommend outside of a terrific Jerry Goldsmith score—I saw that one opening night at the Dome too). Discussion that women aren’t allowed in the Quick Draw competition is discarded pretty quickly and Stone’s Lady has no desire to be any sort of hero to the admiring young girl played by Olivia Burnette. She’s clearly more interested in downing those tall glasses of whiskey and keeping to herself, only doing something about what’s happening to the girl when it’s clear no one else will and the memories bubbling up inside her can’t keep from exploding. Written by Simon Moore, it maybe is a little all over the place--the absurdity of the basic plotline means that it could be played for camp or even as a starkly existential conflict but instead Raimi decides to dive in and make every single frame of a piece with his unique visual style as every note of the Alan Silvestri score pounds away in this setting that is strangely stylized and fully lived-in all at once. There are genuine pleasures all the way through such as that expressionistic montage of the first day’s matches which I sometimes feel like I could watch over and over for hours and even the way certain actors move within the frame as the camera rapidly dutches its angle can be exciting in itself. Every gunfight is filmed in a slightly different way each time which definitely helps avoid repetition but it also means that some are going to be less effective than others, some will have just a few too many zoom shots for their own good even in the context of a neo-spaghetti western. The transitions from day to night and harsh sunlight to pouring rain allows for a surprising amount of attention paid to the simple passage of time even if it does result in some structural oddities such as how the delay of Stone’s first fight means that act one is stretched out to a surprising degree and since we’ve already seen her shoot it’s not a point of suspense to delay showing how good she is. There’s some cool laconic dialogue sprinkled in there (“How do you spell that?” “Correctly.”) and all the actors, both leads and supporting, seem to dig into their roles as if biting into juicy steaks—they’re not playing the parts for kicks or camp, they’re fully inhabiting these roles and the characters within them, as if Raimi allowed them to actually live in this town in character for a week before shooting began. The filmmaking never feels at all uncertain but the tone does as if unsure how to reconcile the drama with the craziness Raimi brings to it. For all I know it’s the craziness he thought he was supposed to bring to it, along with the intensity brought to each moment by the best actors in the cast which continually amps up the tension. At the same time there’s the occasional scene, which turns up every now and then in his films, where he doesn’t seem to have any idea how to stage normal dialogue interactions and actors just wind up standing there awkwardly before the blocking moves them better into position (one conversation between Gene Hackman and Keith David plays like the film just wants to get the scene over with quickly). There’s also a few indications of possible gaps in the story occurring in the editing room—a love scene between Lady and Cort is missing from the U.S. version (apparently it’s there in the international cut) which presumably explains why Crowe calls her “Ellen” late in the film without it being stated otherwise. Though she’s known as “Lady” all through the film she’s listed as “Ellen” in the end credits anyway. But for all that was reported at the time of Sam Raimi’s conflicts with Gene Hackman who apparently didn’t take kindly to the director’s heavily storyboarded approach there is a power to how each of the faces are framed in such iconic ways, how much the sumptuousness allows the film to be continually thrilling as illogical as it all might be (I wonder how Herod is able to acquire all those fresh apples he keeps in his home). Part of the subtext seems to be about how the various gunmen who have entered this contest have each crafted their larger-than-life personas over who they actually are for all the west around them to automatically be impressed by and what lies beneath the bravado when the bullets actually, unexpectedly, hit. Combined with the extreme fetishization of all these guns and how sick it all is this at times makes the film even more of a satire in 2013 than it probably ever was before. It’s always struck me that Jerry Swindall’s shoe-shining “Blind Boy” who is always near the action and providing crucial help when needed has an unmistakable resemblance to Raimi himself, as if representing the filmmaker quietly standing by as a sort of seer while all this carnage occurs, wanting to turn his movie into an extended Three Stooges short—touched on in small bits, like the cutaway to a panicky resident closing a window behind him right before a match—but knowing it can’t be, that there has to be more power to it than that for anything to matter. Aside from the Woman With No Name (well, almost) and a story point near the end trying to be its own version of the revelation in ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST the film isn’t trying to directly ape specific spaghetti westerns except in the most obvious ways, instead feeling like a mash up of various periods of the western as made in Hollywood and beyond. I won’t go as far as Raimi’s own criticisms but I do wish it didn’t have such a 90s climax with massive explosions and maybe because of the satirical slant the emotion never quite holds or even matters all that much so something like the rousing TOMBSTONE from ’93 is probably more endearing in the end. But Raimi’s visual power helps the film to feel true to its own purposes, like how even the fade out feels somewhat tentative as if no one knows what to possibly do next…a piece of quiet that acknowledges the price paid in leading to all this. It doesn’t provide THE QUICK AND THE DEAD with a huge payoff but it does acknowledge that this wasn’t all fun and games, something that may have occurred to Raimi as he was putting this together and wondering where things were going to go next. Giving a performance that goes beyond just amused stoicism Sharon Stone does a terrific movie star job, making clear how much is going on underneath the steely isolation she projects. No surprise, much of the genuine dramatic impact of the entire film comes from Gene Hackman and his very presence, fully embracing how much of a bastard Herod really is but even without a script that makes him as three-dimensional as UNFORGIVEN was still keeps him somewhat human. I just love the inflections in the way he states, “If you live to see the dawn it’s because I allow it” as he barks at the town’s frightened citizens. Watching Stone and Hackman play off each other throughout the film has numerous pleasures--she doesn’t have the power of Hackman but that makes sense anyway considering how intimidated she’s supposed to be and when he casually asks her, “Do you have some particular problem with me?” he makes the moment genuinely disarming. Russell Crowe and Leonardo DiCaprio are still a little raw here but the screen presence of both of them can’t be denied. Crowe comes off as so damn earnest which plays as an unexpected counterpoint to all the post-modern irony in the air and DiCaprio’s bravado plays as endearing instead of arrogant which feels crucial to making things work in the end. Along with enjoyable work by the various character actor gunfighters like Keith David, Lance Henriksen, Mark Boone Junior and Tobin Bell, Roberts Blossom is the town doctor, Gary Sinise plays Ellen’s father in flashback, Kevin Conway is particularly good as the scummy Dred and Pat Hingle brings quiet humanity to his role as the saloon proprietor and tournament manager, presiding over every single moment and powerless to do anything about it. Bruce Campbell is credited as “Wedding Shemp” in the end crawl but apparently is never actually seen in the film. For whatever reason one piece near the end sticks out to me—the triumphant return of a major character for the big final showdown is scored not by a bombastic fanfare but by the appearance of a gentle guitar version of the main theme representing the lost innocence that’s being avenged, going for the emotion over the spectacle even as it builds to a payoff where someone only learns they’ve been shot when they look down and see a hole in their own shadow. It’s an indication of what the film is trying to do and how it’s trying to modify certain expectations throughout whether those modifications are expected or even necessary. It makes me think Sam Raimi was trying for the unexpected, even if the end result didn’t always work, and maybe that’s what we need from a director like him more than a big, slick studio tentpole. Whatever his feelings about the film now ultimately are, I suspect he knew that needed to try something different at the time when all was said and done. At some point way back in ’94 I was working at a bookstore in Brentwood when one day a couple with a baby came into the store looking for a particular paperback which they had called ahead for. I recognized the man as Sam Raimi immediately although I kept quiet--as much as I was hardly ever shy when it came to talking to people it felt like since there was a baby around best to let them be. As things turned out, his next film released at the end of 1998 was based on the book he purchased that day, “A Simple Plan” by Scott Smith, one where in making it he essentially plunked his camera down on the ground and just shot the thing, the exact opposite of the films he had made up to that point. This brought him acclaim but also seemed to open up his directing style beyond the heavily-storyboarded approach of the past, providing it with more possibilities when he eventually returned to films that once again let him make use of such visual insanity. It doesn’t seem right to casually dismiss THE QUICK AND THE DEAD but I can understand why a filmmaker might want to grow creatively and explore what else they might have to offer when they don’t resort to their usual bag of tricks. The films which get them to that point may be flawed, they may be messy, but they’re films I sometimes love anyway as I watch them and obsess over what they are.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

No Right Or Wrong Answers

The first we see of Freddie Quell isn’t Freddie Quell at all but of the top of the helmet he is wearing. Then when he looks up we see him. His eyes. Looking. Piercing. The mind of Freddie Quell will never fully be penetrated during the time we know him, any more than we could see directly through the top of that helmet. All we’ll ever be able to take from knowing him are those eyes, his laugh, the way he slaps himself in the face when he’s blinked in the middle of that first session. Freddie Quell is his own person, his own master, even if he doesn’t know that. He’s done too much that he can ever forgive himself for, yet he has to press on. There’s really no choice in the matter.
Paul Thomas Anderson’s THE MASTER opened at the Cinerama Dome playing in 70MM in September of last year, during one of the hottest weekends I have ever experienced in this town. On that first viewing I wasn’t even sure how I felt, only knowing as I drove off into nearly 110 degree weather that I was overwhelmed, dazed, possessing the uncontrollable feeling that something unknown had just been injected into my spine, the name Freddie Quell forever burned into my brain. So I went back to see it again the next day. And then went one more time the following week. Now the Blu-ray has been in my player pretty consistently since the day it was released as I remain transfixed by every frame over and over. While it can be impossible not to associate the film with how Anderson has grown, evolved, since the long ago days of BOOGIE NIGHTS up to the more recent THERE WILL BE BLOOD, the undeniable Kubrick-ness of the narrative (fitting that the first time it was shown in public, a secret up until the very last moment, was after a Cinematheque screening of THE SHINING at the Aero) or how in this 1.85 70MM frame it all plays as much more Cassavetes than as the larger-than-life Lean you would almost expect from the format the film was shot in or even down to how much Joaquin Phoenix resembles Montgomery Clift late in the film, almost as if some kind of reincarnation is taking place through that celluloid as Freddie Quell is beaten down yet refuses to acknowledge any sort of defeat. It’s difficult to imagine Freddie Quell facing any sort of defeat except as far as the rest of the world is concerned. Soldier Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) returns home from WWII working as a department store photographer and living off his own hooch much of the time. After instigating a fight with a customer, he flees. After spending some time working on a cabbage farm his hooch possibly poisons a migrant worker he flees. He stows away on the boat of the renowned Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), leader of “The Cause”. Dodd takes a liking to Freddie, as well as to the special hooch Freddie makes that he can’t determine the ingredients of and submits his stowaway to processing, leading to Freddie becoming essentially part of the group. Once they arrive in New York, Freddie is very much a part of Dodd’s inner circle although certain members of his family including wife Peggy (Amy Adams) express doubts over how committed he really is. In some ways this is the shell of the plot of THE MASTER. In some ways it doesn’t matter. That post-war glow of smiles and hope in the photographs that Freddie is taking for his job, smiles he could never understand, and the department store salesgirl offering that mink to customers with a “$49.95” coming out of her as she slinks around (I find myself continually mesmerized by this particular shot which feels like its own short film) seem to burrow their way into Freddie’s brain and die right there. He only seems aware of the visions of his past, of his family, of whatever happened to him overseas, of those visions of women real or made of sand, of the young Doris who wrote to him while he was at war and fell in love with and may have been too young for him anyway, who he may have been so in love with that he knew nothing but to flee. We never actually see Freddie crying, as he the V.A. doctor tells him he apparently does after reading a letter he receives but he does laugh outright at the very thought of the world ‘nostalgia’, not wanting to remember such things as he makes his hooch. When he is reminded of something, as he tells that migrant worker in Salinas how he reminds him of his father, the old man winds up deathly ill and possibly poisoned from that hooch Freddie has given him. His ferocity always hiding close to the surface, Freddie is in many ways the dragon Lancaster Dodd speaks of in the speech given on the night of his daughter’s wedding, maybe a dragon he’s been looking for or hoping for, to wrestle with and tame, possibly so he can figure out how to tame himself, of his own fears, out of his own desire to not totally consume himself in the world of The Cause that he has created and is continuing to make up as he goes along, with his wife goading him along maybe more than he would ever tell anyone, not wanting to reveal that she’s his own Master—she’s not quite the sole power behind the throne but she is certainly more than her kindly maternal appearance would immediately indicate. For a brief time Dodd sees Freddie as someone who will accept what he is giving without hesitation and his insipid public persona of always making everything about him contrasted with the private way he deals with Freddie, a loyal companion by his side who in public Dodd barks “Freddie! Stop!” at (not that it does any good, as the skeptical Mr. John Moore at that party later finds out) as if he were a dog or, well, a dragon. His descriptive phrasing of “You’re acting aggressive because you drank too much alcohol” when the two men first meet sounds like it’s being spoken by someone who doesn’t drink at all and yet Dodd welcomes whatever this mysterious hooch that Freddie can continue to make with open arms, giving him the chance to be that dragon which The Cause, his own invention, seems to be about taming or ignoring. “Man is not an animal. We are not a part of the animal kingdom…” as Dodd is heard lecturing at one point and it feels like he wants to forget what he is trying to teach his disciples. There is enough ellipsis throughout the running time, not to mention questions raised by the extra scenes in the 20 minute “Back Beyond” section on the Blu-ray and DVD, to indicate how it seems writer-director Anderson stripped things down to what the film and its story ultimately needed to be, this film shot (about 85% of it, apparently) and meant to be viewed in 70MM implying all the vast scope imaginable and instead of giant battle scenes gives us a nearly 15 minutes scene of the two leads in a dark, enclosed space talking, confronting, the camera letting us see every pore in their faces and every crack in their demeanor. Anderson loves those faces, he wants us to see those cracks. I don’t know if that’s why he wanted to shoot in this format but it makes the film all the more beautiful, the conflicted emotions that seep into me because of it all the more prevalent. Whether the camera is gliding along or holding firm on a face as it stares directly into Freddie’s eyes I’m not sure that there’s a moment in the film where I’m not totally mesmerized by what’s onscreen and Anderson’s direction is always cutting, piercing its way into the eyes of those damaged soldiers being told of “rejuvenating powers of youth” as they return home to all that post-war optimism, something we don’t see at all in their faces while maintaining a distance from it all, quietly observing as if not entirely sure of what it means himself. The film doesn’t pass judgment on what The Cause obviously is since it doesn’t need to—we’re able to do that for ourselves and it feels important that we see how good Freddie feels after his extended session with Dodd, better than he ever feels during that early session with the Rorschach test in the V.A. And why wouldn’t it feel good? Freddie’s loyalty to Dodd seems to come more from that feeling than ever actually believing in The Cause but for a while that’s all right since it gives him a sort of purpose that he didn’t have earlier, leading from how he started a fight at his photography job in the department store to the delicate way he handles his master (who undeniably resembles the businessman he fought with earlier) while taking his portrait. Freddie does find a simple peace in taking these photos of Dodd, along with his quiet pleasure at adding “it works” to a radio announcement he makes and it occurs to me that these photos will most likely be used as official portraits of the man for a very long time—you don’t get rid of Freddie Quell that easily. But it’s as if what the truth really is (“He’s making all this up as he goes along. You don’t see that?”) doesn’t matter to Freddie except in explosive spurts until it absolutely has to matter, when the awareness of what’s been nagging at him finally explodes during the sequence when Dodd’s publisher confides what he really thinks of his new book. The Cause may be going to a new level but once these thoughts are put into words by someone else Freddie can’t go further with it so he chooses to literally go straight forward on his own. If Dodd seems to think of himself as a mirror version of the person who has just entered his life or some part of himself to be tamed, Freddie doesn’t seem to be aware of that resemblance. Dodd is very much determined to make them two…two, a word he lets linger in the air during their final meeting as he describes where they first met in another life. Much as he may want to stay with Dodd in the end, Freddie seems to know deep down that he is just one, all by himself. When he does flash back to his past it’s to Doris, the girl he loved and yet the girl he never really knew beyond the letters she sent, letters no doubt of an innocent affection that he probably never encountered at any other time in his life. And of course he flashes back to visions of the girl he creates for himself in sand on the beach back in the Pacific—an ideal of some sort, maybe not meant to be Doris yet the figure dwarfs him in a way that seems to deliberately resemble how the much younger Doris looms over him when they’re sitting on that park bench together. So what is she—Caregiver? Mother? Lover? What is the story with Aunt Bertha, anyway? Has Freddie had any woman other than her? In another Kubrick flash for reasons I can’t quite understand when he seeks out Doris years later and learns what happened to her it reminds me of James Mason’s Humbert Humbert tracking down the now-married Lolita years later and being faced with the cold reality of her and everything. All Freddie can do when he learns the news is circle around back to Dodd. When he can’t stay there, he circles around back to himself, back to the girl he created on the beach, taking a little of what he learned from his former Master but still completely Freddie Quell. The film received three Oscar nominations, all for the main actors. Deserved in every possible way, obviously, but the fact that nothing else from the film was recognized (no Paul Thomas Anderson for either his script or directing, no cinematographer Mihai M─âlaimare, Jr. among others) almost means that they don’t matter, that’s how much everything in the film feels joined together. It almost seems an understatement that Phoenix, Hoffman and Adams become their characters completely and few actors have ever completely embodied what they’re playing as Phoenix absolutely becomes Freddie Quell, that there doesn’t seem to be a sliver within him that isn’t Freddie Quell especially in that long, endless close-up of him during his final confrontation with Dodd. Everything Phoenix does is mesmerizing, everything he does is surprising. Hoffman totally captures the cloudy nature of Dodd, the insipid nature of his public persona, the callous arrogance with just enough showing of what uncertainty lies underneath all that. It’s almost easy to forget how much of Amy Adams’ performance isn’t just that glare she gives but the force she gives off in certain confrontation scenes is so unexpected and yet makes perfect sense considering what’s been built up from the start. Also sticking out to me in the phenomenal cast are Amy Ferguson as the $49.95 girl, Jesse Plemons as Dodd’s son Val, Jennifer Neala Page as the girl Freddie applies his own session to at the very end and the great Kevin J. O’Connor as Bill William, here as in THERE WILL BE BLOOD providing a quiet moral presence in the middle of the film which of course results in him being duly punished for it. In many ways I want this film to remain impenetrable to me. I don’t want to fully comprehend some of its mysteries. I’m not sure I’m even able to. But I’m not sure why knowing such things even makes a difference, no matter how often I watch Freddie acting like an animal as he moves from the wall to the window and back again, not stopping, not knowing why he won’t stop. I’m even addicted to the score by Jonny Greenwood as well which lends a lingering, haunting power to these images. It remains beguilingly outside the action while at the same time continually drawing me in closer. As far as answers go, Freddie Quell is told in his V.A. psyche test that there are no right or wrong answers anyway although the end reveals how his experiences with The Cause have given him a tool to aid in what is to him the only thing that matters. So that would have to be a good thing. He needs to remember, he needs to be there with the girl on the beach. As for THE MASTER, all I care about is that the film is there. As for life, we repeat what we know. What we know we repeat. As it should be. Sometimes new things get into that circle and become part of it all, even better if it’s in glorious 70MM although I’m well aware that isn’t going to happen very much anymore. And maybe the only thing we can do that will have any results is to keep moving forward. Whether serving a Master or not.

Monday, May 6, 2013

All Sorts Of New Possibilities

One film leads into the next over and over into infinity until you sometimes can’t tell the difference from one to the other anymore. Roman Polanski’s BITTER MOON begins with a couple together on a serene vacation, in each other’s arms as if there is no one else in the world. Soon enough the wife steps away briefly but is gone a few moments longer than expected. The husband then goes to investigate ultimately resulting in his life, or rather both their lives, being forever turned upside down. What’s unusual is how this is also essentially the opening of FRANTIC, Polanski’s previous film, although the narrative takes a considerably different turn this time out. And yet, maybe it doesn’t. What the husband finds upon entering the ladies’ room in search of his wife results in both of them aiding a woman played by Emmanuelle Seigner, Polanski’s own wife by this point, yes, but also the star of that previous film who was aided in that climax by another married couple. The degree to which she ultimately isn’t helped at all either time indicates how much elements of this film turn the previous one inside out, how almost all of Roman Polanski’s films reflect each other, how much each of them are about very similar preoccupations in the mind of their forever controversial director. Maybe all films reflect each other until they become our very lives as we watch them over and over. Maybe that’s just what happens and it’s the only thing that can keep us from madness in the end. BITTER MOON was released in Europe in 1992 but didn’t turn up stateside until 1994 when, in a fortuitous piece of scheduling, it happened to hit theaters around the same time as the smash hit comedy FOUR WEDDINGS AND A FUNERAL which also starred the BITTER MOON married couple Hugh Grant and Kristin Scott Thomas—not as husband and wife that time but as people with a certain connection to each other and, for that matter, Thomas was even named Fiona in both films making the line between the two oddly blur together even more. I can’t remember now which one I saw first but I actually did encounter both of them the very same week, making the films odd mirror reflections of each other to me for all time. But what is so interesting is how BITTER MOON is such a mirror reflection of itself, of the two couples the film is about, of the present combined with the past it spends much of the running time flashing back to, of the first time the words “I love you” are declared to the point later on when that moment is recreated under very different circumstances, to how it reflects not only the films that surround it but the life that surrounds it in the unavoidable issues faced when dealing with the life of its own director. And, of course, it’s a dark comedy made by Roman Polanski, much as most of his films are dark comedies anyway—I’m not sure anyone has done as much with madness building from the deceptively simple concept of apartment dwelling, a cinematic framework in numerous films of his from way back in REPULSION and THE TENANT to the more recent CARNAGE. Or maybe just enclosed spaces in general—the private yacht of KNIFE IN THE WATER and its triangle of husband, wife and stranger becomes a cruise liner in BITTER MOON where we mostly focus on the foursome of two couples who may all ultimately be strangers to each other while finally somehow understanding each other all too perfectly. Both the apartment and ship in BITTER MOON become worlds unto themselves, the tiny spaces as vast as whole continents as the characters have nothing to do but remain as close to each other as possible. The walls close in as the unspeakable passion turns to apathy and hatred, the sex turns to doing nothing more than sitting and watching TV. And on that ship things become more perplexing, more enticing, the more Oscar tells Nigel his story. Passion dies no matter what, the film indicates. Even simple honesty between couples is never much solace, because eventually all the conversation that remains becomes lies as well. While taking a serene cruise through the Mediterranean on their way to India married British couple Nigel and Fiona Hobson (Hugh Grant and Kristin Scott Thomas) encounter a clearly troubled French woman named Mimi (Emmanuelle Seigner) which is soo followed by Nigel meeting up with the woman’s husband, a wheelchair-bound American named Oscar (Peter Coyote) who sees right away how attracted Nigel is to Mimi. Without even being asked, Oscar begins to tell Nigel his story, of how he met Mimi when living the life of a writer in Paris, how they both fell madly for each other, living as if there was no one else in the world, how they went too far in their passion and how it all went sour, resulting in what happened to Oscar and their ultimate passage on this ocean voyage. One thing I’ve learned: nothing in life can be as absurd as taking an interest in another person, whether romantic or purely carnal. Maybe because it’s clear that we only ever have one thing on our minds whether we want to admit it or not and what winds up challenging that interest can throw us for a loop like nothing else. Still, there’s a certain amount of honesty in that behavior and the way each person responds to what’s brought before them indicates that their chummy familiarity with each other can be the biggest hypocrisy imaginable. Oscar and Mimi barely even speak to each other on their first date but it’s certainly honest and pure, just like how Mimi’s response to when she cuts Oscar’s face while attempting to shave him with a straight razor is simply to lick off the blood, truly joining them together for all time. But sometimes that honesty extends to when one person asks what they did to cause their relationship to go wrong and the answer is, “You didn’t do anything. You exist. That’s all.” Maybe that’s all you can say to certain people when you don’t know how else to say you love them anymore. At that point all that’s left is the contempt. With a screenplay by Roman Polanski, Gerard Brach and John Brownjohn (based on the novel by Pascal Bruckner) BITTER MOON is about the madness that comes from all those feelings swirling together, the sort of details focused on that only Roman Polanski ever seems to notice and how those details add up to that particular form of unencumbered frenzy. And mixed within its pitch black comic look at the extremes of sexual obsession maybe BITTER MOON is also what can happen when the dreams of being an artist exceed your abilities or possibly also when your determination to take things as far as possible can exceed your dreams of ever being an artist. Mimi seems to not give much thought to her dancing career anyway and from what we can tell Oscar has spent years in Paris screwing as many women as possible (some of whom we don’t even see the faces of during their brief appearances) and then writing about them in his unpublished books, as if expecting to receive acclaim for the simple reason he’s able to do it and without much apparent thought beyond the sheer fantasy of the whole thing. Even the ever-present Gitanes that he smokes feel like just a part of that image he has cultivated in remaking himself, essentially abandoning his true self. And when he writes out a simple sentence about first encountering Mimi, the woman who will be his love and doom, he erases it instantly as if he can’t bring himself to put such passions into his own work—he has to live them, at any cost. Good for telling a story to a stranger, bad for being a writer. Maybe every type of obsession is a fantasy as much as that cardboard wedding photo Oscar & Mimi have taken after first declaring their love, a fantasy that can’t sustain itself until it’s forced into becoming its own reality. Where is the line? And what is he left with when he doesn’t even bother with the pretense of being a writer? As seems to so often be the question in Polanski films, if you’re not who you always assumed you were then who are you? What are you? Polanski’s approach is never less than impeccable in how he stages every single moment from the innocent reverie of the first meeting on the bus to the random shots of other passengers puking during the New Year’s Eve party on the boat as Nigel’s dream is crushed before him—the irony of the misdirection in the shot when Oscar finally locates Mimi early on is beautifully sly. Maybe some of it is unfortunately limited in what can be shown under the constraints of a film with an R rating (“for strong depiction of a perverse sexual relationship”)--one key flashback is only heard about in dialogue and considering what’s being described maybe that’s for the best but it still feels like a flaw that it’s never shown but the film’s sharpness in portraying Oscar and Mimi’s relationship though each time he licks milk off her breasts gets us to somehow understand his perverse nature, how he finally tires of this while at the same time feeling equally repulsed by his behavior as well. Playing a writer with dreams of what France means to him, Coyote later appeared in Brian De Palma’s FEMME FATALE as someone with a similar outlook to that country and Seigner who has been married to the director ever since they met on FRANTIC, here transforming from virginal beauty to the sexual extremes of a heavily made up mannequin who seems not quite human (this moment always makes me imagine a Polanski-directed remake of Bava’s BLOOD AND BLACK LACE) as she ties him up down to the cruel depths of his degrading treatment of her takes full effect. And there’s the unseen home country Oscar has left behind, abandoned for (phony?) dreams of artistic glory, certainly recalling how the film’s director fled long ago, not even remembering when it’s Thanksgiving anymore—by a certain point he’s gone so far from what he used to be that he doesn’t even remember his own birthday. The Vangelis score almost luxuriates in swimming through all this insanity even as the passion does, as Mimi returns home one night to find jealous Oscar watching ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA (photographed by this film’s cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli and music composed by Ennio Morricone who scored FRANTIC) on TV. Nothing about it can be genuine while it all feels absolutely true. Even when there’s a brief respite for the two it isn’t enough to keep it going since eventually one realizes how forever (or, as Oscar also calls it, eternity) is a long time. Seeming to know he’s out of his element but unable to keep himself from pressing forward in getting involved with this couple, Nigel as played by Hugh Grant (who around this time also starred in the comedy SIRENS where he was married to a woman played by Tara Fitzgerald, not Kristin Scott Thomas, but Fitzgerald still looked like her anyway) is trying to figure out exactly what is going on here. He can’t figure out how much is true, how much is genuine, how much is a show for his own sake while his wife seems to be moving comfortable into a middle age of playing bridge while apparently more taken with children than she’s ever been willing to admit—they’re so open with each other that there have to be some lies buried within. I can say that I identify with some of it, that I’m pretty sure I’ve had women treat me just as Seigner teases Hugh Grant on the ship in between Oscar’s prolonged recounting of their relationship. And I take note of how Peter Coyote, around 50 when this was shot, at one point during a flashback says how he’s ‘pushing 40’ and hasn’t sold a single book? Christ, I’m older than Peter Coyote all of a sudden? On the other hand, if I still haven’t found myself in such a relationship of both extreme passion and hatred does that mean I’m a failure, one who has yet to encounter what this film insists is eternity? Maybe instead of another Polanski film it should really be paired with EYES WIDE SHUT, which also explores different forms of “marital therapy” in its own particular ways. On the other hand, maybe I should remember how the concept of locating inner serenity is laughed off by Victor Banerjee’s Mr. Singh, the fellow passenger who clearly has already found it in his own private narrative, possibly even as he lost his own wife. You don’t have to travel as far as India to discover such a thing. You certainly don’t have to travel “much further” as Mimi enigmatically describes. What is inside will always be there with you in your own tiny apartment. Even if it’s not something you should find in the first place. The extended New Year's Eve climax plays as an extension of the impossibly slinky dance Seigner performs as she practically climbs over Harrison Ford in FRANTIC, also set in a nightclub that has a somewhat Middle Eastern atmosphere, results in the inevitable for someone like him--the awareness that you may have played a few crucial chess moves wrong and, in one more mirror to it all, you’re left standing there like a schmuck. With an equal amount of power coming from Polanski and the four lead actors whose performances are never anything less than riveting all in their own unique ways, BITTER MOON is piercing. It’s compelling. It’s sexual to the point of complete absurdity. It’s hysterically funny to the point of total and absolute pain. It’s painful to the point of hysteria. It’s a film about the dream of really fucking that girl you’ve spent years gazing at from afar, about the fear of finally accepting you’re a failure as you become faced with who you’ve become and what that results in. And the possibility of what might come after. The ocean of life keeps moving, breaking through the waves nonstop, not even ceasing by the end that Oscar and Mimi could very well have planned all along without ever even speaking of it. The moral is a little broadly spelled out in terms of the innocence they left behind, the child they never had represented in the boy Oscar tosses a ball back and forth with, the child that Nigel and Fiona could still have. That possibility is of course represented here at the end in a spectre of innocence that Harrison Ford and Betty Buckley were never allowed at the end of FRANTIC since their own kids were back in San Francisco, throwing parties while their parents were out of town. Here, it’s up to Nigel and Fiona to decide what they want to happen next between them. Roman Polanski and Emmanuelle Seigner had their first of two children soon after BITTER MOON was completed so maybe the film is saying that this next step is the only answer for the future. Maybe other answers are possible but who knows what they might be. Plus there's always the issue of even finding someone who you might connect with on such a level of passion in the first place. But that's another story. In the meantime, all you can really do is move on to the next film in life. Or the ongoing life found within films.